EVERY election year at about this time, the television networks and others start trotting out their national polls showing that Candidate A is ahead of Candidate B.
The conventional wisdom, based on these polls, is that President Clinton is currently ahead of Senator Dole in the presidential race - although Dole's possible choice of a running mate greatly affects the choice of those surveyed.
This is reflected in a recent survey of newspaper editors by the Technometric Institute of Policy and Politics. Of 121 editors queried, 78 percent said if the election were held today, Mr. Clinton would win.
The flaws in polls at this stage of the game? It's too early to predict the outcome because the public (1) hasn't made up its mind, and (2) mostly isn't paying attention yet. For example, in January and February of 1980, polls showed Democrat Jimmy Carter leading Republican Ronald Reagan by margins of about 2 to 1 - hardly a guide to that November's decisive outcome in the opposite direction. More recently, in the summer of 1988, polls gave Democrat Michael Dukakis as much as a 20 percent lead over eventual winner George Bush.
An even bigger flaw is that when it comes to US presidential elections, national popularity figures are misleading at best, and meaningless at worst. The president is elected by the electoral college, the result of 51 (state and District of Columbia) elections all on the same day in November. It's technically possible to win the popular vote and still lose the election. It's happened three times in our history (1824, 1876, and 1888), although never in this century.
(Q: What happens if no one wins a majority of electoral votes? Answer below.)
When you punch the presidential part of your ballot on election day, you are actually voting for a slate of electors pledged to vote for your candidate. Each state gets one electoral vote for each seat in the House of Representatives and the Senate. It takes 270 votes to win. Despite the current polls, the electoral-college math doesn't favor Democrats, and the White House knows it.
Consider the following: In the last five elections, the two Democrat winners - Clinton and Carter - had the weakest showings among the five in the electoral vote. Twelve states with 73 electoral votes have voted Republican in all seven of the last elections. Add the 12 states that voted Republican in six of the last seven elections, and you have 165 more votes for a total of 238. Thirteen additional states with 146 votes went to the GOP in five of the last seven elections, bringing us to 384 electoral votes, well beyond the number Dole needs to win.
Meanwhile, the president currently can count on only 11 states with 109 votes.
As they say in the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. California, one of the six-out-of-seven GOP states, is currently leaning toward Clinton, as is Oregon, adding another 61 votes for a total of 170. Tennessee (home to Vice President Al Gore), Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, and Illinois are other Republican states that could stray; they have 73 votes. Pennsylvania, with its 23 votes, is historically a swing state.
PoliticsUSA, the National Journal's World Wide Web page, suggests that Clinton has a base of 170 votes, while Dole has 188, and 180 are tossups. Depending on which of the wavering states you award to Clinton, other scenarios give Dole anywhere from 230 to 280 votes.
The arithmetic also shows that Dole can win without California if he carries the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, while Clinton cannot. (That's an interesting reversal of California's role; it used to be that no Republican could win without the Golden State. The switch of the South from the Democrats to the GOP explains the change.) The Clinton people see an opportunity in Florida, but Republicans and some independent analysts dispute this.
These scenarios assume only two major-party candidates. A third-party run by Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan (or both) would upset the whole chess board. While most observers assume that a Perot run hurts Dole more, some evidence suggests that it doesn't do Clinton any good in several states, either. And the White House is quite concerned about Ralph Nader's presence as the Green Party candidate on the California ballot.
As it appears today, the election will be won or lost in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, assuming that Clinton carries California and Dole wins Florida. Look for both to spend a lot of time in those locations, and for those states' hot issues to move front and center on the national agenda.
(Answer: The election moves into the House of Representatives, where each state delegation may cast one vote for one of the top three finishers: If a state delegation has a majority of Republicans, presumably the Republican candidate would get that state's one vote. Sound bizarre? It's happened twice: in 1800 and 1824.)